Le Tour de Gentrification: a Serious Fucking Bummer, but also Beer.

I used to live in a run-down shack of a house on the corner of SE 50th and Lincoln built as a general store in the 1920s. The floors were all uneven, there were drafts everywhere, and the kitchen was home to a rat the size of a small dog. We had a rotating tap of roommates for the five years I lived there.

On my days off, I’d made a habit of walking a dozen blocks or so to a little consignment shop called Village Merchants about once a week. Most of the knick-knacks and tchotchke in my home came from here. Some weeks I’d find all sorts of cheap treasures. Others, I’d go home empty-handed. All that mattered was the unknown, the walk, the routine. Every week, for five years.

Eventually, I tired of the neighborhood. Seemingly everyone around earned double what I did and had popped out a kid or two to justify owning an SUV. The yoga studio across the street featured a cringe-worthy ‘orb’ mural my eyes were sore from having to look at every day. I decided to move out of this charming dump and into a 1-bedroom Buckman apartment with a killer view and six south-facing windows allowing for many rays of sunlight. It was a bit more expensive, despite being as old as my prior 1920s residence.

While equally aged in years, this building is maintained far better. If we know each other personally, you’ve heard me gush about how much I adore my home. Hardwood floors, claw-foot tub, matching trim throughout, and in a location that can’t be beat. And for several years, it was actually affordable. Those days, however, are long fucking gone.

In the last year, my rent has gone up by $125.00 a month, and I’m not alone. Talking with people in my building, they’ve experienced the same. Once they relished coming home. Now, doing so is a reminder of rapidly increasing financial burden. My neighbors are angry, and they are scared. “I can’t afford to stay,” a bar-tending friend who shares our address recently told me, “but I have no idea where I can go, everywhere else they’re jacking up the rent, too.”

I’ve been writing for a bit of time about capital real estate, gentrification, displacement, class, cycles of urban divestment and reinvestment. Lacking the energy to rehash it all over again, you can delve into a few of those prior works here, here, here, and here if you like. Simply put: gentrification isn’t a byproduct – it is an intended, profit-driven market scheme. It is the means and it is the end. It is inarguably an act of violence.

How to resist? How to organize? How to stop the unstoppable? Many neighborhood associations have fought back, have sued, only to be crushed by developers with far more money and a justice system that favors expansion of enterprise over the rights of renters.

Yet most neighborhood associations are comprised of home owners. Rarely will you see the younger classes of renters at their monthly meetings. The idea of knocking on doors and meeting everyone in your building, of creating something of a renter’s union that could wield collective power against wealthy building owner seems like a daunting task. Who wants to pour free time into just fighting to stay in your home? Who wants to run the risk of being singled out and targeted for eviction for being an organizer within their building?

These are the kind of questions that keep me up at night.

Perhaps I’m not suited for that particular form of rabble-rousing. Perhaps I am. Time will tell. What I am good at is organizing bike rides big and small. With that skill in hand, earlier this week I co-lead two rides focused on this threatening issue. Credit for coming up with the idea goes to Joe Clement, who shared such with Nicholas Caleb, who suggested it to me. Joe also happened to host Nick and I prior to the rides on KBOO to talk about gentrification, the full interview of which can be found HERE.

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The first Le Tour de Gentrification saw some 125 riders show up, most of whom I did not know. In a town this small, that’s saying something. While Nick spent the bulk of the time on the bullhorn, I initially addressed the crowd. “Who here feels they’ve benefitted from gentrification?” I asked. About a dozen hands went up. “Who here feels they’ve been harmed by gentrification?” Dozens more went up. “Interesting. Good to see we’ve got some diversity of experiences.”

The ride, often stretching over three blocks in length as we moved about Portland’s east side, stopped at 5 separate locations. At each, Nick and I, and whomever else wished to add to the conversation, would talk about the individual sites, their history, their proposed futures, and the implications for new and existing residents. A full run-down of locations and specific issues addressed at each was detailed by Jason Merritt, who himself has been forced out of two different homes by gentrifying developments.

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As people shared histories and their own experience, it was hard not to notice a feeling of depression settling in, a feeling of powerlessness. Even grabbing a few pints after the ride didn’t seem to lift spirits much. The Portland we know and love is going away. It’s being replaced by something none of us can afford. Bummers and beers abound.

Still, there was a general satisfaction in gathering well over a hundred people on their bikes in the sun for some real talk about shit that matters. So much so, in fact, that we decided to do it again, just days later.

This time, though, instead of the lecture forum via bullhorn with a large crowd, only a handful of riders showed up for a more personal, get-to-know-you ride. With no plan or notes in hand, we winged it – crowdsourcing the route, engaging in conversation instead of soap-boxing. Arun Gupta of Alternet and Guardian UK fame was on hand to help provide national perspective to our dialog.

After visiting the much beloved urban praire commonly known as the Goat Blocks (which will soon become a 257 unit mega-development with 398 parking spaces, YUK!) our group decided to venture up to Division street. We’d heard that condos had been appearing there practically overnight like some 4-story, cube-shaped mushroom field. When we arrived, I wasn’t prepared for what we encountered.

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Turning off of Clinton street, it was like looking down a glacial canyon – smooth, sterile surfaces with no people, anywhere. I couldn’t even tell where this was. Nothing was familiar. Not one of the three buildings pictured below existed more than a year ago. After several minutes, I realized where we were. Where these Borg-cube condos now towered had sat the quaint, single-story Village Merchants, now demolished and relocated, where I’d visited and shopped hundreds of times. Across the street had been a tiny moped shop in a house.

This didn’t happen over a generation, or even over a decade, this happened in just years. Vastly out-sizing surrounding homes, vastly out-pricing existing apartments, offensively imposing their bland aesthetic banality, broadcasting that the poor and creative are no longer welcome here, these developments were sickening to observe. We were shocked, but surely not nearly so as the people living next to these monstrosities. The last Google street view taken from this point looks like a different city entirely.

We wandered up Division a bit further, maneuvering around closed sidewalks. Where the Egyptian Room once was now stands likely the most despised development in the city. Eventually, we retired to a nearby pub that’s been a staple of the neighborhood for a good, long time. We talked shop a bit, strategy, policy – all that stuff. Over dire issues and pitchers of IPA, new friendships were formed. The day was not a total downer.

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Where do we go from here? How do we build a Right to the City movement? How do we ensure that existing communities retain more power than millionaire developers looking to carve up the land and squeeze out the working class?

Those are questions we’ll be addressing in the coming months and years. We’ll be meeting with neighborhood associations, we’ll be knocking on doors, and we’ll be building an actual progressive political platform for 2016.

This city is a laboratory of democracy, but only sometimes. Often, Portland has a serious deficit of public process. That’s gonna’ change. Our right to this city won’t be granted to us. It will be necessary to organize to exert those rights. Unless we want Portland to become a developer’s utopia devoid of both creative culture and economic diversity, we’re going to have to fight, and fight hard.

Stayed tuned to Rebel Metropolis, Mismanaging Perception, and the Portland Right to the City Coalition for updates soon.

See you in the streets.

•••

14 comments

  1. I live near 82nd Avenue in what many would consider an undesirable area of the city to live inn Last year my rent went up 30%. You know the worst part is my carpet is sagging and in disrepair and the floors are soft in spots and we have plumbing and electrical that’s shot out.

    Our slumlord landlord wont fix these problems and we really cant afford to force him because he could fix the issues and wait 90 days (under Oregon Law) and no cause evict us. In fact he did this to one of our neighbors who complained about the lack of maintenance when he raised our rent last year. She had a kid so it was depressing to see her scramble to find new housing…. Out in Troutdale even.

    What kind of city do we live in when the cheap neighborhoods are beyond what a worker can afford?

    1. Lost in Portland, is there a lot of new development near your place near 82nd? If not, does that suggest that the raise in prices that you and Hart and I have all experienced is due to the fact that we’ve had one of the five lowest rental vacancy rates in the country for six years?

      Hart, this is well-written and a deeply felt article and organizing work. I agree that this is a huge social problem that market forces can’t solve. But if the direction of our action is to block development, we’re not escaping the free market. We’re just making the free market even worse, by driving up the price of cheap housing and giving more economic power to slumlords. New development didn’t cause the price increase any more than fire engines cause fires.

      When people keep moving to a town that doesn’t open more housing units for rental, rich people and people willing to cohabit bid prices up, which prices middle-class people where poor people used to be, and so forth. It seems to me that this describes Portland’s experience pretty well.

      Seems to me that the problem of income-diverse neighborhoods is different from the problem of rising rents.

      1) The problem of rising rent is mostly solvable by constantly letting rich people build fancy housing that then slowly rots into affordability for others. The private sector is pretty good at doing this (slowly).

      2) The problem of income-diverse neighborhoods is mostly solvable by targeted rent control, rent subsidy or inclusionary zoning. The public sector could be good at doing this if we let it.

      I share your concerns here. I think they’re best addressed by finding ways to use the tools in (2) without interfering with the process of (1).

      1. That would appear to be where our views greatly differ. I don’t see the state or the market as two different entities, and their ‘tools’ are designed for one thing and one thing only.

        This isn’t about limiting development, it’s about having development be community-driven to serve the best interests of both in coming residents and historic residents. There’s no reason whatsoever that we can’t house people affordably.

        Cultures of resistance are already being built, look no further than PAALF’s recent success. As their press statement so perfectly articulated, this isn’t about being “anti-development” at all: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/929379-paalf-letter-regarding-trader-joes.html

        1. Your neoliberal talking points are boring and predictable. Density is not a yes or no question. The Pearl is the most expensive, unaffordable place in Portland. Almost no working class family can live there.

  2. I moved to Beaverton because I could no longer afford to live in even the crappy areas of Portland. I hate living here, and my rent just went up again. I fear having to live with people again, but it will probably happen soon.

  3. OK, I agree you could see the market and government as part of a single system. You’re saying that rent control, rent subsidy and inclusionary zoning are tools of that system? If that’s what you mean, I don’t know what the one thing they’re designed to do is. I guess there’s an argument to be made that those are all just roundabout ways to make powerful people richer, but I’m not sure that’s your implication.

    What do you mean by “community-driven”? Without more specifics, the only vision I see is that of neighborhood associations, which as you show are pretty terrible institutions.

    I find PAALF’s statement pretty persuasive, and also pretty specific to that situation. How do those arguments apply to 50th and Division?

    1. Michael, what I’m saying is whatever minor efforts governments offer towards rent control fail to adequately mitigate the real issue: the housing “market” is unsustainable on every level, as is all capitalism. You cannot have exponential, or even linear growth with finite land and finite resources. As with housing, we see how all wealth is derived from taking from those who have no power of ownership or state authority.

      When I say “community-driven”, I’m referring to existing communities having total say in the direction and process, not the bullshit input meetings where neighborhoods get steam-rolled. Development should only be happening if a community comes together and decides it wants to build more housing or commercial space. This probably sounds horrifying to somebody who writes a real estate beat. Usually when I suggest this kind of inverted process the reaction I hear is, “But then nothing would get built!” Yet here, we see the real issue: building for building’s sake, for profit’s sake, for greed’s sake. For if a development was honestly so necessary, would not the people of a community have already been asking for it?

      The developer as dictator regime theory is pissing people off, and they’re going to organize against the Ben Kaiser’s of our city. For many, it’s the only option they have left. I highly encourage you to read David Harvey’s ‘Rebel Cities’ and Paul L. Knox’s ‘Metroburbia USA’. Both are academic texts that have informed much of my philosophy and understanding of how cities truly function, and why that status quo needs changing.

  4. Also, I find the aesthetic judgements confusing and tangential to the issue of gentrification. The new buildings look like efficient, clean residential blocks much like any modern European downtown. I was just at Salt and Straw (standing outside waiting for 20 min of course so time to look), noticing how similar those buildings look to something you’d find in Germany or Denmark. If we’re going to be a) a popular place to live, b) committed to preserving the vitality of the city as opposed to edge suburbs, and c) interested in sustainable living which in this case means efficient buildings both in terms of density and resource usage, I don’t see better alternatives. We’re adding multi-unit, modern and energy conserving housing stock in areas surrounding downtown. Using public levers to keep that housing stock affordable for a wide range of residents is hugely important. But it’s separate from what kind of buildings we live in. I absolutely love old homes. I’m not a fan of contemporary styling; it’s too anodyne for me. But I also realize a drafty, code-deficient house 150 years old really isn’t doing the neighborhood many favors.

    1. Density needs to be more than a Yes or No discussion. Talking about housing and density without recognizing the people who already live in a neighborhood have rights is a giant mistake.

    1. Blight and neglect are part of the cycles of divestment and reinvestment necessary to maximize profits for capitalist real-estaters. Drawing attention to divestment is purposeless if you’re not also highlighting why it’s happened, and for whom it benefits.

  5. http://www.mystatesman.com/news/news/local/career-ambitions-higher-cost-of-living-erode-austi/ngFYZ/#0ff475e5.257273.735390

    It’s happening all over the place. Apparently people love to live where the slackers live so they move there removing the slackers that they love so much. I’ve seen it in the places I love here in San Antonio. The good news I guess is that here, we don’t like the slackers and my city insanely covers 535 Sq miles but not all of it is bikable.

  6. I forgot who demand that Portland Expand on one of these Gentrification stories, but here’s my response.

    A city can expand, but it also must take on that added burden in providing infrastructure and services to it’s new areas. It’s a good thing that Portland has rules about not expanding the city and just look at the Expansion of our cities all across the continent, closed off, car dependent, and very very expensive to maintain. It’s the reason why are cites, including my AAA credit rating city are in default.

    We use to expand our cities with common sense, with expanding incrementally up with added value and incrementally out, the strongtowns.org approach.

    I heard at one of Chuck Marohn’s talks that he give out about how he met this guy from Costa Rica, and he said that when they expand, they expand one block and wait until that block is full before expanding onto another block.

    If Portland is going to expand, it will have to expand a little out at a time, it must keep the grid pattern in place, NO CULT-DE-SACs, and must make sure that all the property that is in that expanded block is occupied before expanding even more.

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